Future-ready workers?

Today’s schools struggle to prepare students for tomorrow’s workplaces, experts agree

Lindsay James
6 December 2017

5 min read

A new report from the World Economic Forum suggests that today’s education systems are not adequately preparing children for the workplace of the future. Compass asked top educational experts from around the world how they would tackle the challenge.

The world of work is changing, and fast. The rise of technologies that include the Internet of Things, robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, 3D printing and blockchain are combining to create the Fourth Industrial Revolution, challenging the way industries operate and transforming their business models too.

This shift will have a profound impact on the employment landscape over the coming years. According to the 2017 “Future of Jobs” report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), for example, one third of the skillsets required to perform work by 2020 will be wholly new.

Educators are facing the prospect of changing their entire curriculum, virtually overnight.

“Many of today’s education systems are disconnected from the skills needed to function in today’s labor markets,” said Till Leopold, project lead for Education, Gender and Work for the WEF in Geneva, Switzerland. “And the exponential rate of technological and economic change brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution is further increasing the gap between education and labor markets.”

Maurice de Hond is founder of the Steve JobsSchool in Amsterdam. Thirty SteveJobsSchools, named after the former Apple CEO, are operating in the Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa. The schools actively incorporate digital skills into their curricula.

“Education systems across the world are failing our children,” de Hond said. “The curricula is, on the whole, geared to a world that no longer exists. Thanks to the rise of digital technologies, we’re in the midst of the biggest revolution we’ve ever witnessed – but traditional establishments are still preparing our children for a business world of the past.”


While the future world of work is shifting with each new technology introduction, one trend is already clear: tomorrow’s jobs will require greater science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) expertise.

At the Steve JobsSchool in Johannesburg, digital skills are actively incorporated into the curriculum. (Image © Steve JobsSchool)

According to 2016 research by the Australian government, in the next decade an estimated 75% of jobs in the fastest-growing industries will need STEM skills. However, according to an October 2017 report by Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times, the number of students enrolled in STEM-related programs in higher secondary and tertiary levels is on a decline.

“It’s no secret that there is a challenge of insufficient STEM education,” said Peter Balyta, president of Education Technology at Dallas-based Texas Instruments (TI). “The number of US jobs in STEM fields is growing about three times faster than non-STEM jobs, with a projected 9 million STEM jobs needing to be filled by 2022.”

As a result, many organizations are looking to promote STEM subjects in schools. Private-sector companies, including TI and Honeywell, have invested in STEM-based initiatives. Meanwhile, a number of nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations have been established to tackle the challenge, including San Antonio-based SASTEMIC, a nonprofit organization focused on inspiring both students and teachers to embrace STEM subjects.

“We offer STEM educational services to students to expose them to STEM career opportunities that are available, which they might otherwise not have access to,” said Jake Lopez, the company’s executive director.

Proponents are especially focused on technology aspects of the STEM shortfall.

‘’Our data shows that, in nearly every industry across the globe, technology skills are becoming increasingly important to employers,” said Joshua Graff, country manager at LinkedIn UK and vice president of Marketing Solutions for the company in the EMEA region. “Globally, cloud and distributed computing rank as the top two skills required, based on employer demand, followed closely by statistical analysis and data mining. This means that, for the world’s educators, developing technology expertise should be the priority.’’


Former US President Barack Obama highlighted the looming mismatch between employer needs and educational output in his 2016 State of the Union address, when he launched the Computer Science (CS) for All initiative and promoted funding for schools to close the digital gap.

“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill, it’s a basic skill,” Obama said in a video following his address. Coding, in particular, the former president said, is vital.

“I strongly believe every child has to have the opportunity to learn this critical skill,” Obama said in September 2017, during a national briefing organized by the CS for All Consortium. “We are inundated with technology, and I don’t want our young people to just be consumers. I want them to be producers of this technology and to understand it, to feel like they’re controlling it, as opposed to it controlling them.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook seconds that goal.

“We think coding should be required in every school because it’s as important as any kind of second language,” he said on a recent visit to Woodberry Down Community Primary School in Harringay, UK. “With a knowledge of coding, children may help find solutions to tomorrow’s problems.”

Despite the increased focus, however, TI’s Balyta believes that something is not working.

“For more than a decade, businesses, nonprofits, community groups, concerned parents and civic leaders have collectively invested hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours to help improve and advance STEM education,” he said. “The sad truth is we’re not yet getting a great return on our investment.”


Parminder K. Jassal, who leads the Institute for the Future’s Learn and Work Futures Group in California, sees a dark flip side to the emphasis on coding.

“While STEM and coding skills are an important part of the basic skills needed for the future, they are not the key,” she said. “By simply having coding skills, a person might end up having the new blue-collar job of the future – a contract programmer. This job would be similar to factory workers and other manual laborers of the past century and some today. What’s really needed is for the education system to foster future work skills – proficiencies and abilities that will be required across different jobs and work settings. The ability to gain new knowledge is far more valuable than the knowledge itself.”

Singapore Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung also emphasizes a need for lifelong learning skills.

“Besides being a pathway into good jobs and lifelong employability, education also needs to be a journey to fulfill hopes and aspirations,” he said in a March 2017 speech to Singapore’s Parliament. “The two need not be at odds with one another. Education must impart skills, not just information and knowledge. This is for a simple reason – information can be Googled; skills cannot.”


A similar emphasis on practical skills led to the inception of Big Picture Learning, co-founded in Rhode Island by educators Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky, who wanted to demonstrate the need for radical changes in education.

"Today's traditional schools only think about certifying students in academics or career pathways inside the school,” Washor said. “They do not pay attention to whether (students) can do the work in the real world, and they are not paying attention to what students do outside of school that might be developing real-world skills.”

In contrast, he said, Big Picture Learning starts with students’ interests, involves their families and mentors and then develops a college and career pathway plan to help students develop their interests and achieve their goals.

“We have students leave the school building to learn and work with mentors around their interests two days a week,” Washor said. “We focus on real-world certifications before they leave high school and help them accrue college credits while they are in high school that are connected to people and places who know them outside of school and can get them work.”

The Steve JobsSchools take a similar approach.

“Recognizing that success in the future requires an understanding of the basic skills that workers in the future will need, our approach is not about teaching information but about teaching problem solving,” de Hond said. “We focus on three key principles: find, filter and apply. Flexibility is also very important; we concentrate much more on the talents and possibilities of the individual pupils.”

By taking inspiration from these success stories and using experience-led approaches to teach children how to learn, these innovators agree that educators can empower students with the skills they need to tackle problems and independently develop solutions once they arrive in the workplace.

“As new approaches and new technologies emerge, funding and experiments are necessary for identifying the most effective models with potential to scale and create meaningful change in education,” WEF’s Leopold said. “Successful approaches will empower students to be lifelong learners who take ownership of their upskilling throughout their lifetimes.”

Read McKinsey Global Institute’s November 2017 report on the potential shifts in the workplace

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